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© Bob Denton 2014

Julius Caesar reported that the people in modern France called themselves Celts, yet the Romans chose to call them Galli or Gauls. Perhaps derived from the Gallatia kingdom they had established in Turkey? The Romans recorded that there were perhaps more than sixty different groups of Gauls.

Rome seriously set out to annexe Gaul from 58 BCE as much to stop attacks from Gauls and Germans that were becoming regular occurrences.

Under Roman control Gaul was divided into three provinces:

  • Gallia Cisalpina (Gaul this side of the Alps) – northern Italy
  • Gallia Narbonensis (was Gallia Transalpina, Gaul the other side of the Alps) – southern France
  • Gallia Comata (long-haired Gaul) – northern France, Belgium and parts of western Germany

These provinces were subdivided into civitates and further sub-divided into pagi, the origin of the later French use of pays for country.

Roman rule followed a number of principles that sought to engage the Gauls. Retired Roman soldiers were given lands to exploit. They demonstrated a living example of Roman life for the locals to admire and to seek to emulate. Roads were soon built to connect the civitates and Gauls began to build Roman-style villas. 

Locals could join the Roman army as auxiliaries, they would be used only in other countries. Once they had retired they were granted Roman citizenship and could enjoy all the benefits that this accrued.

Financially a series of censuses were held to form the basis for taxation. Local communities were encouraged to issue their own coins as part of the system.  Vines were introduced from Italy for the Gauls to grow wine locally.

The Romans ruled in this way for five centuries and this close proximity inevitably led to intermarriage, the inter-mingling of cultures and fashions, with a steady Latinisation of the country.

A spoken mix of Gaulish/Celtic with Latin emerged to be called Vulgar Latin and this would much later evolve in to the French language.

Julius Caesar – had manipulated that he bemade proconsul of the two Roman Gauls, Cisalpine Gaul – the Gaul this side of the Alps – the region between the Alps, the Apennines and the Adriatic (ie modern-day northern Italy); and the Transalpine Gaul – the Gaul beyond the Alps – today’s Switzerland and Alpine France. Particularly significantly he was awarded this role for an unprecedented ten years, when these were usually allocated for just one year terms.

He set about tackling the many tribes one-by-one, first those in northern Italy, then the Helvetii (the Swiss plateau), the Belgae (the low country coastline), the Nervi (central Belgium). His success was rewarded with negotiated alliances with other tribes.

The druid Diviciacus emerged at this time as an important member of the Gaul delegation to Caesar and became their chief spokesperson. There is some belief that he had been elected the ‘chief magistrate’ of his people. The reports of squabbling between the tribes that Diviciacus brought to him, allowed Caesar to divide and conquer the tribes on his way towards full control.

In 57 BCE there was a drought that meant Caesar was short of grain, this forced him to winter deep among the northern tribes.  He set up a number of encampments spread across the area.

Indutiomarus of the Treveri tribe had earlier been in an internal wrangle with his son-in-law Cingetorix who was pro-Roman.  When Caesar arrived in their territory Indutiomarus found that most of his support soon dissipated and Caesar was able to promote Cingetorix to be the Treveri leader.  Embittered he proposed a series of attacks, he convinced the Eburones to do the same in their lands.

The Eburones leaders Ambiorix and Cativolcus launched attacks on Caesar’s camp. Their lands spanned parts of today’s Belgium, Netherlands and the Rhineland; Eburones were variously called Gauls, Belgae or Germani.

Ambiorix later convinced Caesar that he had not been involved in this.  He then warned the Romans that a large German force was headed their way so they decamped and walked in to a prepared ambush where they were massacred. Ambiorix destroyed the 14th legion at Atuatuca. This legion became known as unlucky and was frequently given thankless assignments like guarding the camp while others went on raids; though they were part of a later invasion of Britain in 43 BCE.

Decimation – this word originally derives from the Roman practice that if a group in their army mutinied or deserted the officers would execute one tenth of them. In this way they kept much of their force intact but of course the nine-tenths remaining had every incentive to obey for the future.

Another Roman camp was wintering in the lands of the Nervii tribe (Ed’s note: not the greatest name for a tribe of warriors!), one of the Belgic tribes.  They soon came under siege from Ambiorix. Caesar had to march to relieve them, on arrival he encountered overwhelming odds.  He ordered his troops to look disorganized and concerned and this lured the Belgae into ground that favoured the Romans and they put the Belgae to flight.  They relieved the camp.

For his part Indutiomarus marched against another camp to the west of his lands among the Revi tribe where he set siege.  Rather unwisely he developed the habit of leading his cavalry around the besieged camp each day, the Roman commander infiltrated a group of auxiliary cavalry into the Gaul force and they attacked and killed him.

Caesar commenting on the Gauls was to say of Ambiorix and his warriors,  ‘Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae…’, ‘Of these the Belgae are the bravest.’ Ambiorix is reported to have escaped to the east.  This unrest forced Caesar to remain in the North throughout the winter.

Celtic kings – The suffix -rix at the end of a Celt/Gaul’s name implied he was a king, rather like the Latin rex.  This suffix is adopted by the fictional comic-book Gaul, Asterix (more later).

Caesar suffered further setbacks in 54-53 BCE when his political connections back in Rome weakened. One immediate issue was that without political clout at home he could not readily acquire reinforcements for the destroyed 14th Legion.

The tribes in Gaul realised from these actions that their best approach for the future would be to unite together against the Romans. The Carnutes attacked Roman citizens in Cenabum, today’s Orléans, and this was followed by further attacks on Roman merchants and citizens in other Gallic cities.

Caesar had been wintering in Cisalpine Gaul but marched across the Alps, while covered in snow, to catch the Gauls by surprise. He split his troops so that one group challenged the Senones and the Parisii in the north, while he lead the group against the Arverni Gaul leader, Vercingetorix,

Vercingetorix had been dismissed by an uncle for his anti-Roman sentiments. He responded by raising an army and seizing control of the hill-fort of Georgovia, near today’s Clermont Ferrand. He proclaimed himself king of the Arverni in 52 BCE and subsequently created alliances with other Gallic tribes. He was granted overall command of their forces.

He operated a scorched-earth policy ahead of Caesar’s forces then met them at Georgovia, where the Romans had set a siege. Caesar’s force was outmanoeuvred and took heavy casualties, 46 centurions and 700 legionnaires were killed and thousands injured. He was forced to retreat. But Vercingetorix too had great losses too, he decided to move on to another stronghold.

Caesar mounted a series of cavalry skirmishes and engagements that scattered the rest of the Gallic forces. Vercingetorix had established himself within the hill fortifications at Alesia, the capital of the Mandubi tribe; located near to today’s Côte d’Or, near Dijon.

The significant battle took place there between Caesar and other notables, including Mark Antony, set against a confederation of the Gallic tribes in 52 BCE. The location was a strong one, set between the natural defences created by two river valleys. A direct assault was not an option, Caesar had to lay siege to it.

The fortification contained the local populace and 80,000 warriors, so Caesar built a circumvallation, a surrounding wall that ran for 18 kilometres at a height of four metres completely around the Gauls. Remarkably it was built in just three weeks. They added a flooded ditch and a series of holes and traps that were overlooked by a series of watch towers. Vercingetorix’s cavalry had tried to harass the building work but to no avail.

Fearing reinforcements arriving Caesar added another wall that ran for 21 kilometres to protect his force between the two walls. As conditions inside the fort deteriorated Vercingetorix ordered the women and children to leave hoping that Caesar would let them out and that perhaps this might present an opportunity for the Gallic forces to breach the wall.

Caesar would not permit them through, forcing them to stay in the no-man’s land between the fort and the circumvallation where their condition worsened and this had a demotivating effect on the warriors within, seeing their relatives in this condition.

Insufficient reinforcement’s arrived under the leadership of Commius but they attacked the outer wall, while the warriors within attacked the inner wall. Of course from within the two walls Vercingetorix was unable to coordinate these actions. The first assaults were unsuccessful but this meant that Caesar’s troops were now effectively the ones under siege now.

Later assaults had more success and these also sought to exploit the one point where the walls could not quite be rounded off. The Gauls almost managed a breakthrough there.

A high-risk cavalry attack by Caesar of the reinforcements from their rear spurred his forces to prevail. The demoralised and retreating defenders were slaughtered by the Romans and Vercingetorix had little choice but to capitulate.  He was taken to Rome and imprisoned for five years then displayed as part of Caesar’s triumph in 46 BCE; he was later executed.

The outcome of this battle was the end of any further organised Gallic resistance. Gaul became a Roman province and it took three centuries before there would be any significant move towards overthrowing the Roman yolk.

Vercingetorix memorial – in 1865 Napoleon III commissioned a seven-metre high statue to the Gaul leader at the supposed site of the Alesia battle.  The inscription reads, ‘La Gaule unie, formant une seule nation, animée d’un même esprit, peut défier l’Univers.’ Gaul united, forming a single nation, animated by a common spirit, can defy the Universe.

Caesar however used this famous victory to reestablish his power-base in Rome, crossing the Rubicon in 49 BCE to create a civil war that lasted five years until he was declared in 44 BCE as the dictator perpetuus, dictator for life, by the Senate.

Also in the 1st century BCE, the Romans launched a major military campaign to conquer the areas the Mediterranean pirates were using as bases.

Following on from Julius Caesar success, Claudius I, born at Lugdunum (today’s Lyon), continued to harry the Celts into Britain and then pushing them back further into Caledonia (Scotland) and across to Hibernia (Ireland).

Claudius did authorisee Gallic aristocrats to sit in the Roman Senate from 48 CE. However his rule was not all benign, he ordered that the Druidic religion should not be celebrated and many of their deities were soon ‘overwritten’ by Roman ones. Of course worship of the Emperor was also a trend that was promulgated.  But by the 4th century Christianity and its Latin services began to predominate.

Marseille adapted well to its status under Rome. During the Roman era, the city was controlled by a directory of fifteen selected as ‘first’ among its 600 senators. Three of them had the pre-eminence and the executive power. The city’s laws among other things forbade the drinking of wine by women and allowed, by a vote of the senators, assistance to a person to commit suicide.

Christianity appeared in Marseille, as evidenced by catacombs above the harbour and records of Roman martyrs. According to Provençal tradition, Mary Magdalen evangelised Marseille with her brother Lazarus. The diocese of Marseille was set up in the 1st century.

Gallic Empire

One notable Germanic tribe member was Postumus.  He is said to have been a Batavian, from the Rhine delta area. He had joined and ascended through the ranks of the Roman army to win an honorary consulship.

In 259 CE Emperor Valerian became preoccupied with the Persians, while his co-Emperor, Gallenius was tangled with defences along the Danube.  So it was left to the son of Gallenius, Salonius, to protect their borders along the Rhine.  Postumus was fighting there too.

In 260 CE, the news was received that Gallenius had been defeated and captured. But Postumus defeated this Germanic army, the Juthungian, as they were returning home laden with loot and slaves from its victory.  He chose to distribute the spoils among his Gauls, but Salonius insisted it be passed over to him. These events sparked a rebellion by the Gauls who proclaimed Postumus as the emperor of Gaul; they attacked and killed Salonius.

He was immediately recognised by the Germanias and Raetia.  The following year he was also appointed Emperor of Britannia, Hispania and Gallia Narbonensis. He ruled an empire stretching from today’s Cologne, Köln to the Iberian Peninsula. 

He established a Senate from the pre-existing Council of the Three Gauls and created his own praetorian guard, Victorinus was one of its officers.

Postumus became popular as he restored security along the Rhine borderlands against the Franks and Alamans through 262/3 CE. While he was preoccupied with those enemies, Gallenius tried several unsuccessful attempts at retaking Gaul; he succeeded in retaking Raetia, today’s east and central Switzerland.

Postumus celebrated his victories by minting coins, perhaps most famously his ‘Labours of Hercules’ series to commemorate his favourite god. But ironically it was when the value of these coins became debased, following problems in the Spanish silver mines, that his empire started to come under renewed pressure.

One such outcome was when in 269 his army in Germania Superior rebelled and named their own emperor, Domitianus. Postumus defeated him rapidly but then he couldn’t control his troops that wanted to sack the rebel capital of Mongontiacum (today’s Mainz).  His troops turned on Postumus and killed him.

They appointed one of their number as emperor but he was soon replaced by Victorinus, once an officer in Postumus’s own praetorian guard. As this was all unfolding the Gallic Empire lost its control of Hispania and once again came under regular attacks from the Germanic tribes.

Victorinus was murdered in 271 BCE, Gaius Pius Esuvius Tetricus was appointed the new emperor of Gaul as Tetricus I, ruling jointly with his son Tetricus II.  The end of this fourteen-year Gallic empire came in 274 when the Roman Emperor Aurelian defeated Tetricus at Châlons (now Châlons-en-Champagne, Marne, Champagne-Ardenne region).

It was termed the Catalaunian catastrophe, because it was a particularly bloody battle. This did not assist Aurelian’s future needs as he had required all of his own troops and any remnants of the Gallic force to join his army to defend the east. He had been greatly depleted by the nature of the battle.  Perhaps as a result the Franks and Alamans began to record more success along the Rhine.

Tetricus and his son were spared by Aurelain, the elder being appointed to a role in southern Italy. There is some suggestion he had abandoned his army to their bloody end.

AstérixThis long-lived comic series features a tribe of Gauls battling with the Romans. It started as a serial in a magazine, then some 35 books have been published between 1961 and 2013, selling 325 million copies in a hundred different languages.  They have inspired a dozen films (eight animated and four with live actors) and is the basis for a theme park Parc Astérix.

The story is set in 50 BCE with a community of Gauls based in today’s Brittany and holding firm against Julius Caesar. When they get in to trouble they can resort to a magic potion supplied by their druid, Getafix; this gives them superhuman powers.

The chief of the community is Vitalstatistix, his most successfully warrior is Astérix and his side-kick Obelix, who is big but not very bright. They are accompanied by Obelix’s dog, Dogmatix (though Idéfix is the name used in French).

As the series evolved the band travelled to many far-flung lands for example In ‘Asterix in Belgium’ they go to Belgium infuriated by Caesar’s comment that the Belgae were the bravest of the Gauls. Later story lines became more dependent on fantasy and sci-fi elements.

Fall of the Roman Empire

The first and second centuries were a prosperous period for Gaul based upon its plentiful exports of food, wine and pottery to all parts of the Empire. But as the Roman Empire waned so did Gaul.

It suffered from regular raids by Germanic tribes, or barbarians.  The assumed protection afforded by Rome progressively proved ineffectual against these attacks. So-called Germanic tribes were the scourge of the Romans.  These had originated in what is today’s southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. Climate change from 850-760 BCE and again in 650 BCE had driven them away from the cold and they pushed ever southward.

These tribes had been part of the Iron Age, converting ore from peat bogs in to the useful metal. By 250 BCE they had coalesced in to five distinct groups – those still in Scandinavia (see Normans later), those along the North Sea coast and Jutland, those who had spread along the Rhine and Weiser rivers, those along the Elbe and finally those along the Oder and Vistula. These separate groupings developed separate languages that slowly diverged to the point of unintelligibility between them.

They appear to have interacted peacefully with the Celts, but by the end of the 2nd century BCE these tribes were cheek-by-jowl with the Romans. By 100 BCE the Goths were settled along the Baltic coastline.

The Romans incorporated a number of Celtic and Germanic peoples into its thrall, albeit rather thinly maintained in parts. But once they had recognised the likely limits of their territorial expansion they constructed a line of fortifications to keep out others, those outside their walls, Celts and Germans alike, they called ‘barbarians’.

The Greeks had originated this term, in their language it was barbaros meaning one who was not Greek, the Romans modified the term to suggest rather more, implying they were savage, tribal and uncivilised people.

For example in Britannia, they built the Gask Ridge in Perthshire to keep out Highlanders. Later the better-known Hadrian’s Wall was built to keep out the Picts, describing approximately today’s England-Scotland border. Later still the Antonine Wall was constructed to keep out the Caledonians between the Firth of Clyde and Firth of Forth.

On mainland Europe these fortifications were called ‘limes’, these were erected in many places along the flanks of the Roman Empire.

The Limes Germanicus were built to keep out the Germanic tribes expanding the barrier that was naturally created by the Rhine and Danube. This lime included 60 castles and 900 watchtowers stretching for over 350 miles.

As the fourth century drew to a close the Roman Empire had long been heading for a fall. This was not an overnight disaster, more a slow and gradual decline from greatness.

It was this obvious downturn in their fortunes that encouraged hostile Germanic tribes to seek to spread throughout Europe. This was in part based on pressure from the East and by their own growths in population. They were not so much attacking and destroying Roman systems, more co-opted in to it as it waned.

Tribes did not stay intact when they migrated, as for example the Angles, Saxons and Jutes coalesced progressively into becoming the English.

Forward to Vandals and Visigoths – Back to Celts
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014